House Minority Praises the Signing of a Bill Designating 20 Alaska Native Languages as Official State Languages
House Bill 216 Signed Into Law Thursday Morning
October 23, 2014, Anchorage - The Native languages of Alaska’s indigenous people became official languages of the State of Alaska on Thursday during a bill signing ceremony held in conjunction with the 2014 Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention in Anchorage. Passage of the bill was a priority of the members Alaska House Minority Caucus and Alaska Native people from across the state. The prime sponsor of the bill was District 34 State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka). The Sitka Democrat spoke during Thursday’s signing ceremony.
“Language is our cultural DNA, it's our way of understanding the world. The extinction of a language is an immeasurable loss to a culture. The loss of Native languages demanded action and so we started something that became very, very big and it feels very good because it became such a collective movement.”
Kreiss-Tomkins went onto call passage of House Bill 216 one of his most inspirational life experiences. The bill was passed in mid-April by the House of Representatives without dissent. After a very public sit-in late in this year’s session by supporters demanding the Senate consider the bill, it was approved by an overwhelming majority in the Senate on April 20. Among those in attendance for the Thursday’s bill signing was Delores Churchill from Ketchikan. She is one of the few remaining speakers of “Haida” and she sits on the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council. She said, “I am really excited about having our language come back to us and I have faith in the young people.”
Around 200 people crammed into a small conference room at the Dena’ina Center to witness Thursday’s bill signing ceremony including educator Lance Twitchell. He’s a Native language professor at the University of Alaska Southeast and he praised the work of Representative Kreiss-Tomkins and all of the other lawmakers and stakeholders who kept pressure on the Legislature to officially recognize the 20 Native languages as official languages of the State of Alaska.
“Our ancestors were beaten for speaking their language. Our people suffered tremendously,” said Twitchell, who has been at the forefront of efforts to preserve Native languages in Alaska. “Studies have shown that if a village can reach 50-percent proficiency in their own language the suicide rate drops to zero. So today we do this for our grandchildren, we do this for our ancestors.”
Thursday’s ceremony included speakers of nearly all the 20 newly official state languages and they all praised the work of the Alaska Legislature in finally getting official state recognition. House Minority Leader Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) attended Thursday’s bill signing, which he characterized as monumental. He said, “The recognition of these languages as official state languages was long overdue and much of the credit goes to Representative Kreiss-Tomkins who brought together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the form of a bipartisan coalition to support the bill and Alaska’s Native people and their languages.”
One of the members of the coalition was District 24 State Representative Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage). “How great would our ancestors feel to know that we are signing a bill that honors their languages,” said the Anchorage Republican. “Future generations will speak these languages and pass these languages on to each other.”
The 20 Alaska Native languages included in the House Bill 216 now join English as official languages of the state of Alaska. The new official languages are Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.
While they are all now official state languages, House Bill 216 stipulates that there is no responsibility by the State or a municipal government to print documents or conduct meetings in any language other than English.